How I Got Screwed (by Crew Scheduling)

My roommate and I are sitting outside a bar on Chestnut Street, in the Marina, the yuppie neighborhood of San Francisco in which we happened to sublet a studio apartment. We’ve come to this bar every night, for the past three nights in a row, only “allowing” ourselves to have two beers, because: a) we are on a budget making $17,500 a year in a city where the median annual income is $40,706, and b) we must be available around the clock. We are on reserve.

Mention the term, “Reserve” to any flight attendant and you’ll be met with the reaction one would have when a passenger has just dropped their morning bowel movement in the aircraft lavatory. It stinks. Pervasively.

Reserve is what every flight attendant must do—sometimes for only a few months, if you’re hired at the right time, or sometimes, as in my case, for my entire 18 years—every other month for the first three years, and once every quarter for the remaining 15 years.

Being on reserve means you are available in case another flight attendant gets E.coli  (as I once did, but that’s a different story altogether), a nervous breakdown, or their car dies, or if a plane has a ‘mechanical issue’ (breaks before ever leaving the ground), and the airline needs another crew of flight attendants to cover the flight when the new plane arrives.

So as a reserve flight attendant, one must be on call 24 hours, and ready to be dressed, packed, and at the airport within 2 hours’ time. Back in the mid-nineties, there were no cell phones, so we carried pagers.

As reserve flight attendants, we were to call in to an automated system (crew scheduling) every night at 8pm, enter our employee number (similar to prison inmates, we are referred to as numbers in the airline business), and listen to a recording. The recording dictated what our reserve assignment was.  The voice would either say something like, “Employee number 446105. You have been assigned sequence 15403, position 2, signing in at zero-five-hundred, laying over in St. Louis,” or, “You have been assigned ready reserve. Your relative position is number 18 of 25 available reserves.”

Now I know this sounds like gobbledygook. It was gobbledygook to Wendy and I, too. But we had to learn the system, and that we did. Translation: “Relative position” does not mean doggie style or anything as exciting as the like. It meant that if our relative position was a higher number, such as 18, we might not be as likely to be called in to work as if we were a lower number, such as three.

I’m getting a headache even writing about this. But Reserve and all it entailed was an integral piece to how I started to lose my mind as a flight attendant.

Wendy and I anxiously called the automated system, night after night. We wanted to be assigned a trip—any trip—because sitting around our closet-sized studio apartment (on the edge of The Marina district, on Van Ness Avenue, one of the busiest, loudest streets in San Francisco) with nothing to do but wait for the phone to ring, was depressing.

We both wanted out of the sitting duck mode, and the only way we could be somewhat free was to be assigned a trip.

So we’d wait until happy hour at the neighborhood bar where we didn’t belong (remember, wealthy sorority-type girls making more than twice what we made, with real lives, real friends, and real jobs), nurse our beer and popcorn, then wait until 8:00pm. We’d then go to the nearest pay phone, hoping the voice would tell us we had a trip. Three nights in a row, our relative positions sat at 17 and 18. Three days in a row, we’d sat in our cracker box staring at each other, bemoaning that we couldn’t leave the apartment, because if we were paged, we’d have to make it home, get dressed, packed, and to the airport, in under two hours.

The FAA requires our airline to do something humane: that they contractually give us 12 days off a month. So after three days of the aforementioned non-activities, Wendy and I got two days off.

Then we were on call four more days. Day one: We sat in our cracker box listening for the phone, trying to remain grateful we weren’t homeless and jobless, then went to happy hour. At 8pm, our relative positions had moved to 9 and 10. Day two: Same shit. We went to happy hour, and after our two beers, were so fed up, we bought a cheap bottle of Chianti and nursed it back at our studio.

The anxiety and hopelessness of our situation diminished with the Chianti, so we decided to pool our money together to buy another bottle. I started walking to the liquor store when my pager went off.

“911” was what my pager read. (Remember, no text messaging in 1996; pagers could only receive numbers. Wendy had decided to text “911” to me because the situation was an emergency: it was crew scheduling).

I ran back to our studio, booze change clinking in my pocket. Wendy told me crew scheduling had called, and that she’d said she was me (she didn’t want crew scheduling to think I was out that late at night), and that I had a trip. (At this point, I was not excited that I’d finally gotten a trip; I was worried I’d have to go to work drunk). Luckily, though, my sign-in was at 05:25 at Oakland Airport. That gave me three hours to sleep off my buzz and figure out how to drive to the airport on the other side of the bay.

I gave myself two hours to drive to Oakland airport. I barely made it, as construction on the 580, 680, and 80 interstates was rampant at 04:00. On our first leg, to Dallas Ft.-Worth, we served breakfast sandwiches—mystery meat that actually smelled great, smothered with cheese on a croissant—to 125 passengers in coach. I felt like I was becoming an expert flight attendant, being able to accomplish such a feat without pissing off the other stew I was working with, and without any passengers yelling at me.

After working our second flight, we ended up at the Hilton Kansas City Airport at 14:32 Central Standard Time. “Heavenly,” I thought. A luxury hotel with a room to myself and a comfortable bed. I napped for three hours, then woke up wondering what normal flight attendants do on layovers. I called room of the guy I’d earlier served sandwiches with:

“Hello?”

“Hi, Jim, it’s Kelley. Wanna grab a bite to eat at the bar?”

“Bitch, I’m sleeping and I brought my own food. Please don’t call and wake me up again.”

So much for not pissing off another flight attendant on this trip.

I hadn’t thought of bringing my own food, and perused the room service menu. After realizing I could not afford even an appetizer on the menu, I tore apart my suitcase and found a stale granola bar from a value-sized box Wendy and I had purchased at the 99-Cent Store.

I fell back asleep starving, eager to work the next morning’s flight so I could eat a mystery meat breakfast sandwich.

Our flight departed Kansas City Airport at 06:15, Central time, 04:15 Pacific time. Jim was amazingly chipper when I worked the two legs home with him. I felt like shit, but summoned my cheerful self, a painful habit I learned in order to survive in the airline business. That’s why I have TMJ today: I force sunniness when I my heart is squally.

As I drove home over the Oakland bay bridge, Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” played on the car radio:

“You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser

You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger

You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together…”

I sang along with Des’ree, proud of myself for “staying together” during this turbulent time. As I belted, “you gotta be calm…” I veered too quickly onto the bridge’s off ramp and banged the side of my truck into the guardrail.

“Shit, I gotta be careful,” I said to myself as I fantasized sprawling out on my futon at the studio apartment.

I walked through the door of my apartment, to find the answering machine blinking. “Flight attendant Jhung, we have a trip for you tomorrow. Your sign-in is at 06:00 at San Jose Airport. Please call us back to confirm.”

Even though crew scheduling was technically not supposed to contact us for eight hours after we finished a trip, they broke this rule continually, especially with new hires.

The diligent spineless stewardess that I was, I returned their call, cooked and ate an entire box of pasta, and fell asleep to the screams of a woman we’d nicknamed Tourettes Terry, who walked up and down Van Ness screaming obscenities: “Fuck this motherfuckin’ bullshit bitch whore shit!”

My sentiments exactly, Terry.